Body cameras for police gets thumbs up in B.C.

Body-worn cameras will do B.C. police good, recommends all-party report

  • Feb. 24, 2015 7:00 p.m.

By Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER – A British Columbia legislative committee has recommended the provincial government “aggressively pursue” whatever steps are necessary to suit up police with body-mounted cameras.

The proposal from an all-party special committee is “strongly supported” by its members, who urged the government to undertake consultations and then implement the measure in a report released on Monday.

It comes just days after the country’s federal and provincial privacy watchdogs jointly appealed to police departments nationwide to consider how equipping officers could infringe on the public’s privacy.

It also takes a page from the Vancouver Police Department, which in October became the first force in B.C. to outfit officers with wearable cameras when they dismantled a protracted homeless encampment.

“It’s the direction that a lot of police forces are going because it provides a lot more insight into the valuable work that the men and women do,” said Mike Morris, the committee’s chair and member of assembly for the governing Liberals.

But he noted the committee is aware that privacy czars have signalled caution, and for jurisdictions considering implementation “to see what kinds of legal roadblocks might be in the way.”

The recommendation was formed on the basis of several factors, including the rising use of body-worn cameras in other Canadian cities, which shows the measure would not only be “feasible” but “benefit law enforcement and citizens alike.”

Both Toronto and Calgary are already in the process of expanding the use of cameras.

The committee also described the move as a “really practical suggestion” that would be a natural progression within current technological capabilities.

Last October, Vancouver police donned light-weight, high-definition GoPro video cameras in a limited trial to clear away makeshift shelters from a park in the city’s impoverished Downtown Eastside.

In a presentation to the committee last fall, University of Victoria law Prof. Michelle Lawrence pointed to nine coroners’ inquests that recommended the use of recording devices by police. She said the cost of equipment pales in comparison to the injuries and harms suffered when there’s not enough evidence showing what happened during a police encounter.

The recommendation comes as part of a broader report reviewing the province’s Independent Investigations Office, the police watchdog asked to investigate cases in which people are seriously injured or killed by police officers.

Spencer Chandra Herbert, the committee’s deputy chair and a member of the Opposition New Democrats, said that body-worn cameras remove the need to rely on people’s memories or notes.

He said cameras would greatly benefit investigators in cases where police may have been involved in a deadly incident.

“They want the evidence to come out and show if they’ve operated within the law and they did everything to reduce antagonism or aggression,” he said. “And if they break the rules, we need that evidence too.”

Last week, personal-information protection officials from across Canada released a document that provides guidance into the widespread use of cameras. It encouraged pilot programs first and said safeguards are imperative, such as encryption, restricted access and strict retention periods.

Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said that while his organization does not oppose the measure, they want a detailed set of rules to be installed alongside the technology.

“Who gets to control the footage? How long is it kept? Who has access to it? To what purposes can it later be used? When will it be destroyed? What will the officers’ rights be in relation to it?” are all questions that need to be answered, Paterson said.

He said protocol must be firm to prevent abuse, such as a scenario where officers might record indiscriminately to the point of creating a new blanket-layer of surveillance.

B.C.’s ministry of justice must green light the recommendation as a first step. Then work can begin with police departments to determine budgets and what circumstances would be most appropriate for camera use.

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